A Visual Legacy: Things To Come (1936)

A screen adaptation of H.G Wells 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, 1936’s Things to Come is British cinematic take on its literary forerunner’s socio-political lecture about the future of mankind. Made for £260,000 (about £16.5m today) its budget was sizeable, especially given that cinema was yet to be the recognisable cash-cow that it would evolve into in the post-WWII years.  The fact that the property had Wells’ name attached to it (as well as some degree of influence from the then 69 year-old author – although the extent of this has been subject to much rumour) probably made it easier for Austrian producer Alexander Korda to secure funding for it. Regardless, it’s an impressive spectacle that has been largely forgotten by modern audiences and many SF fans.

Wells' novel was published only three years before its screen adaptation
Wells’ novel was published only three years before its screen adaptation

The narrative itself explores one hundred years of humanity’s future, beginning with the outbreak of World War II in 1940 in Everytown – a clunkily-named approximation of Britain –  and tracing the complete decimation of humanity that this conflict causes. By 1970, war is ended and isolated tribes fight off plague-ridden ‘wanderers’ whilst battling to secure oil supplies from other small bands of humanity’s bedraggled remnants. A quasi-governmental outfit  – ‘The Wings of the World’ is established, and by 2036 it has reconstructed Everytown and transformed it into a shielded utopia. The film’s final act witnesses plans for the next stage of our species’ journey as a ‘space gun’ is built to launch a new era of human discovery, against opposition of those who believe such a venture is dangerous and unnecessary.

Things to Come is not a great piece of cinematic narrative by any stretch of the imagination. Functioning as a (very) thinly-veiled allegory about the ills of war and the grand virtues of scientific rationalism  – as Wells perceived it at least – the tone is pious, preachy and didactic, with almost no ostensible characters to speak of or any sustained dramatic interest. The acting performances are wooden and one-paced, with most of the cast appearing as though they have recently transposed their skills from the stage or BBC news forecasting, adding to the dearth of nuance or subtlety on show. This ‘story’ is more a series of heavy-handed tableaus than a full-rounded dramatic work.

Cover art for the 2012 DVD release
Cover art for the 2012 DVD release

Things to Come is a curiosity; a fascinating exhibit, and there is much to admire about it underneath its overt weaknesses: it is a remarkably clairvoyant piece which is unnervingly accurate in its prediction of the outbreak of WWII, and it acutely telegraphs the battle for oil which would – although much more surreptitiously than is suggested within – occupy the attentions of the world’s nations at the end of the 20th Century and beyond.

Things to Come‘s sharpness, perceptiveness and influence does not halt at global politics and economics either. The focus here specifically is on the impact that this film has had on Science Fiction cinema (and cinema more widely for that matter); Its style, production design and overall aesthetic is arresting, bleak and astonishing, and it would lay a marker alongside Fritz Lang’s more celebrated Metropolis (1927) as to the way that films could (and would) look in years to come. To recognise and celebrate this, a series of film-frames have been captured below, highlighting moments of significance, along with some commentary.

So, if you’ve never seen or even heard of the now seventy year-old Things to Come, take a minute to have a look at six things it’s done for cinema…

 

1. It is frighteningly clairvoyant depiction of another World War:

The opening of the film  – released only eighteen years after the end of the first World war – depicts a brutal second global conflict, and for a work of its time, Things to Come is resoundingly graphic in its portrayal of this. There is a phenomenally high level of care and attention taken by production designer Vincent Korda (the producer’s brother) and by director William Cameron Menzies in presenting the devastation and its aftermath, and shots like the one below are cleverly framed and angular, with a great deal of depth and scale far beyond the standards of the time (even Hollywood film production had only a select handful of screen epics behind it in 1936, largely at the hand of Cecile B. DeMille).

The image of a dead child (in the second of these shots) is a startling and taboo image in even a modern-day work of fiction, and in this respect, Things to Come was undeniably bold and uncompromising in showing its audience the chilling consequences of their species’ flaws. Moments such as this contributed to pushing the limits of cinema and paving the way for more controversial efforts to follow in the many decades ahead. Few though match this example for their flagrant and blunt expression of death and the crimes of war.

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2. It is innovative, stylish visual story-telling

Director Menzies and cinematographer Georges Perinal utilise a variety of unorthodox techniques in order to tell an ambitious and far-reaching story with a huge chronological shift taking place within Things to Come as we are catapulted into the distant unknowns of a speculative future Britain. In the montage shots below, expressionist influences are at work to portray the endless massed ranks of soldiers in a long and apocalyptic war, and subsequently, the elapse of time is achieved through a ticking backdrop of years as the images of war are locked in the foreground.

The montage itself would become a mainstay of major feature-film production in years ahead and whilst Things to Come certainly does not invent the technique, it is an early adopter of it in a significant fictional narrative, helping to transition it from artistic experiment into a functional element of cinematic grammar.

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3. It is one of, if not the earliest depictions of a post-apocalyptic world in cinema

The apocalypse became an important concept for horror and science fiction writers in the 1950s as the planet reeled in the wake of catastrophic global war and waited hesitantly for the potential consequences of the emerging atomic age of warfare. Long before though, Things to Come was exploring a desolate, disease-ridden world that may await a negligent world. In this frame, a plague-carrying ‘wanderer’ is shot by a guard as he attempts to gain entry to Everytown. The choice of camera shot here is brilliant, capturing the gorgeously designed crumbling town in the background as the hapless human shell crumples forward toward the camera. Far more restrained than its later brethren like Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later and the stellar T.V hit The Walking Dead, this depiction of the wretched ‘undead’ is no less haunting than the blood-splattered efforts that would follow in its wake.

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4. It features seminal special-effects work, production design and the realisation of size and scale far beyond its time

Quite simply, the special visual effects work of Things to Come is astoundingly good. Ranging from brilliant shot compositing to achieve size and scale – with actors juxtaposed against giant futuristic machines (shots one and two) – to the strange and unique production-design choices – one of the most striking of which is the flight suit of John Cabal (Raymond Massey) in shot three, Things to Come is a breathtaking tour-de-force. Looking at much later science fiction cinema stretching far into the 1960s, Things to Come stands up remarkably as a technical achievement. Remember, this is some thirty-nine years before Star Wars launched major SF special effects into the popular zeitgeist and thirty two years before Stanley Kubrick’s SF special effects landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sputnik was twenty years away from taking flight, but Things to Come showed a world far beyond their own.

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5. It produced a paradigm-setting depiction of an ascetic, ‘clean’ future

One of Things to Come’s most longstanding impacts was its proposition of an aesthetic, and this cannot be overstated in-terms of its lingering influence over so much science fiction film and television, as well as other aspects of popular culture and technology.

The sweeping, rounded curves and open, flowing designs of Everytown in 2036 are gorgeously anachronistic, resembling the 21st Century luxury apartment, airport or shopping mall. The anesthetic and ascetic white colouring which pervades the mise-en-scene would be critical in influencing artists and film-makers for almost a century, with much of SF taking its cue from this ‘look’ of the future, including seminal entrants like Forbidden planet (1956), Star Trek (1966 – ) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) who utilised this crisp, dispassionate vision of what the future could  and should look like. Perhaps even more significantly, this aesthetic planted the seeds of a commercial and artistic paradigm that would emerge in the late 20th Century and be championed most notably by Apple and its sleek white technological products with their minimalist interface and logos.

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6. It is packed with visionary concepts

Tied to its aesthetics, Things to Come also posits technological innovation that would not arrive for some sixty or so years after its release. In the first shot here can be seen an approximation of the LCD/Plasma television that would usurp traditional ‘tube’ technology in the early 21st Century. In the second image below, the brilliant composite shot of a figure talking on a giant screen to a massed audience is perhaps something akin to a holograph or a giant LCD screen seen in modern-day sports grounds and stadiums. Either way, it is an image and an idea that must have been both thrilling and starting to an audience in the 1930s.

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Finally, take a look at the trailer below for some moving images from the film (note: the film-print used here has not been remastered, so the quality is not as high as in the screenshots above):

 

 

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